Sunday, February 22, 2009

Legacy loans?

Commentators puzzled over Tim Geithner's choice of language in unveiling TARP 4.0:
Second, alongside this new Financial Stability Trust, together with the Fed, the FDIC, and the private sector, we will establish a Public-Private Investment Fund. This program will provide government capital and government financing to help leverage private capital to help get private markets working again. This fund will be targeted to the legacy loans and assets that are now burdening many financial institutions.

Why the shift from "troubled assets" to "legacy loans"? And what does the phrase mean?

Atrios offered a definition: "Chunks of big shitpile." See also No fish, no nuts.

But in all seriousness, the Wall Street Journal helpfully tracked the origin of the phrase last July:
There are signs J.P. Morgan is trying to compartmentalize the past, if not forget it altogether. Chief Financial Officer Mike Cavanagh introduced the idea of calling the suffering loans from the credit crunch “legacy” loans. Of the $22.5 billion of total lending commitments J.P. Morgan had at the end of March, J.P. Morgan distanced itself from those of a hoary vintage that might give investors the shudders. . . .

The modifier "legacy" serves to distance the current owners of the assets from responsibility for ownership, much in the way that "troubled" serves to distance them from responsibility for their current value. We can't blame people for things they inherited, can we?

If we agree to this terminology, perhaps we can apply "legacy" to other things: legacy mortgages, legacy debts, legacy credit lines, legacy cars. After all, everything we own is a legacy from a past self. Why should we be held responsible for anything our past selves purchased or borrowed? All our problems are inherited.

At any rate, it's worth noting the origins of the phrase: from the mouth of J.P. Morgan's CFO to Tim Geithner's ear. Now we see why Geithner was such a popular choice for Treasury Secretary in the business world: If one of your own is picked, you save money on lobbying.

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